The Valdosta Daily Times
Valdosta State’s softball team will host two important Gulf South Conference doubleheaders this weekend.
The Blazers will face West Alabama on Saturday in a 2 p.m. doubleheader. Then on Sunday, Alabama-Huntsville, Valdosta State’s longtime rival, comes to Steel’s Diamond at Blazer Park. Game 1 of the Blazers and Chargers’ doubleheader starts at 1 p.m.
“We’ve got to win some games, so it’s a big weekend for us,” Valdosta State head coach Thomas Macera said. “(We want) some more region wins. We’re trying to win as many games as we can.”
Sunday’s game between Valdosta State and Alabama-Huntsville will be Pack the Park Day. Fans are encouraged to pack the stands at Steel’s Diamond for the game. Free T-shirts will be given to the first 100 fans to enter the park on Sunday. Admission is free to Valdosta State students with a valid student ID.
“There’s going to be a really big crowd here,” Macera said. “How could it not help you if your hometown crowd (is like that)? You’re playing on the road and there’s like 25 or 30 people (in the stands), and you come here and there’s several hundred. It definitely helps you.
“We’ve got the best fans that there is. They come out, they’re loud and the team feeds off of it.”
Alabama-Huntsville (28-11) leads the Gulf South Conference with a 17-4 conference record. Valdosta State is third in the standings at 13-6, behind UAH and first-year GSC member Shorter, which is 17-5 but is ineligible for the conference title.
The Chargers have won nine straight games, and Macera expects them to be at their best on Sunday.
“Huntsville’s Huntsville. It’s always a tough outing,” VSU’s head coach said. “You’ve got to bring your best game, or you’re going to be in trouble.”
UAH has two veteran pitchers in junior Whitney Toler (10-1, 3.33 ERA) and senior Whitney Gilbert (7-6, 2.41 ERA), both of whom have been starters since their freshman years.
At the plate, UAH is batting .334 as a team. Nine hitters have batting averages of .300 or better. Cortney McNett is swinging the Chargers’ biggest bat, hitting .419 with nine home runs and 39 RBIs. Mary Kelley is batting .361 with four homers and 34 RBIs, Kathryn Whitlock has a .359 average, three homers and 39 RBIs and Mallory McNeal is batting .355. Abby MacKay (.322) is second on the team with six home runs.
“They’re killing everybody,” Macera said. “They’re really hitting the ball hard and hitting the ball well. ... They’re very good. They swing the bat. They’re on a roll right now. They’re playing well right now.”
West Alabama (23-14) is sixth in the Gulf South Conference with a 10-12 record, but is one of six GSC schools with a winning record overall.
Like UAH, West Alabama is also pounding the ball this year. The Tigers have a .351 team batting average, and nine hitters batting .321 or better. Anna Shartzer leads the team with a .395 average, along with three home runs and 20 RBIs. Michal Robertson is hitting .377 with six homers and 26 RBIs. Whitney Brown is batting .371 with a team-best eight home runs and 40 RBIs. Morgan Morrison and Tamara Vickers are both hitting .366.
“They’re solid. Most of their lineup is batting .350 or better. They can hit,” Macera said.
Sarah Ray has been West Alabama’s best pitcher this year. The junior right-hander has a 14-5 record and a 2.43 ERA. Jessica Brock has been the Tigers’ No. 2 pitcher for most of the season, going 4-7 with a 4.64 ERA.
Valdosta State split doubleheaders with West Alabama and UAH earlier this season.
The defending Division II national champion Blazers are currently 28-8 and ranked No. 4 in the latest national poll.
“We’re playing all right,” Macera said. “(We’re) still trying to figure some stuff out. We’ve had some people go down, we’ve had to move some people around. We’re still trying to keep working hard, keep working on fundamentals and try to play the game. ... These girls are still trying to figure out how to play together.”
Like their opponents this weekend, the Blazers have pounded the softball this season. They currently have a team batting average of .344 and have hit 44 home runs in 36 games. They are averaging seven runs a game.
All-American Courtney Albritton is having a monster year at the plate. She is batting .430 with 15 home runs and 37 runs batted in from the leadoff spot. Junior shortstop Shelby Altman is hitting .374 with eight home runs and 39 RBIs. Freshman first baseman Kiley Rusen has a .356 average. All-American left fielder Morgan Johnson is batting .351 with seven home runs and 30 RBIs. Senior catcher Ashley Steinhilber has a .344 batting average and three home runs.
Valdosta State has rotated a trio of starting pitchers. Brianna Hancock, who was chosen the Gulf South Conference Pitcher of the Week earlier this week, is 10-3 with a 2.90 ERA. Kenzi Reed is 9-2 with a 1.76 ERA. Hanna Lythberg is 7-3 with a 1.87 ERA.
“They’ve gotten better,” Macera said. “They’ve just got to keep finding ways to keep us in the game and give us a chance.”